The Butter Did it–The Art of Reading Cookbooks

Most people have a few authors or genres that they prefer to read, often reading the same book many times. I’m fond of the novels of Tom Clancy and Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, for example, as well as the Emma Lathen mysteries series and the works of Ayn Rand.

But I’m also fond of reading cookbooks, and I think there’s an art to it.

I treat cookbooks like a suspense novel. Whodunit?!

Some books aren’t as interesting a read as others. The Joy of Cooking, for example, has so many recipes that it’s like reading the novels of James Clavell, where are so many characters and subplots, not to mention multiple views of the same character, that it’s difficult to keep track of who’s doing what, much less why. But I own a number of different editions of The Joy of Cooking, and it is interesting to compare how the same recipe or set of instructions have evolved over the 85 years since it first came out. I think one can also get a sense of how American cooking has evolved over the years.

And for sheer boredom, there’s Auguste Escofier’s Le Guide Culinaire, perhaps the classic book on French cuisine. It consists of 2984 recipes, many of which are variants of previous recipes. Reading this book also requires paging back and forth, as nearly every recipe assumes you’ve already mastered multiple other recipes. In many cases the descriptions of what to do are minimal, and there are few details on cooking times or temperatures. I’ve always assumed the ‘howto’ part is what apprentice French chefs learned at the feet (and sharp tongues) of their masters.

By comparison, Mastering The Art of French Cooking covers much of the same ground as Escofier, and possibly with nearly as many variations. But where Escofier was a minimalist, Julia Child and her co-authors would spend pages explaining in precise detail what to do, how to do it, and most importantly, why you need to do it. And that’s why this book has outsold all other books on French cooking, is in it’s 50th printing (the last time I looked) and remains a classic, one that anyone aspiring to call himself or herself a cook should read. It’s informative and entertaining at the same time.

That was true of James Beard’s books as well. Beard on Bread has what amounts to an entire chapter that is a paen to toast. I find it difficult to read that chapter without wanting to immediately go bake something and then toast it!

Escofier, Child and Beard are all gone now, but their books (and in the case of Child and Beard, their TV appearances) are their enduring legacy, but there are active cookbook authors I’d love to meet and become friends with. I haven’t met Peter Reinhart, though I own a half-dozen of his books and tested recipes for two of them, but I’ve exchanged a number of emails with him over the last several years. Similarly, Greg Patent and I have written back and forth several times, he even wrote back after a trip he took to Hawaii to let me know that white pineapple is making a bit of a comeback in Hawaii.

The ‘bible’ for cooking, as least to me, is probably Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. If I want to know why something happens in the kitchen or want to explore a new food or cooking method, I turn to McGee first. The book changed how I cook, probably in more ways than I’ll ever know.

In a more limited sense, James Peterson’s book Sauces: Classical and Contemporary Sauce Making clarified (pun not intended) my views on sauce-making and affirmed what I had already concluded about several of the so-called ‘mother’ sauces. I’ll probably never make more than a handful of the over 250 sauces in this book, but at least now I understand better what makes a sauce work and why.

I haven’t had the opportunity to converse with J. Kenji Lopez-Alt yet, but I’ve spent quite a few hours studying his book The Food Lab, and his blog posts on pie crusts and apple pie should be required reading for any baker, even if I disagree with him somewhat on his pie crust method. (I understand his reasoning, I just find a more classical approach works better for me.)

What I like most about Lopez-Alt’s writing is that he questions nearly every aspect of conventional cooking wisdom. And that makes much of his writing have a very O. Henry quality to it, you’re never quite sure where it’s going, and I suspect he’s been as surprised at the results of some of his experiments as I was when I read what he wrote about them.

So as cold weather closes in on most of the nation, and it becomes time to curl up with a good book on a cold dark evening, consider picking up a cookbook, either one you already own or a new one, and read it like you would a novel.

See if you can anticipate what’s going to happen next. What methods will be used, what order will things be done in, and what the final product will be like?

Here’s the hard part: Don’t be tempted to head into the kitchen to try a recipe or a technique mid-book. Put a Post-It note on that page so you can go back later, your mind will continue thinking about that material, and by the time you go back to try it, you’ll probably think about it differently than when you first read it.

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Published:November 20, 2016

Cooking

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  • #5627
    Mike Nolan
    Keymaster

    Most people have a few authors or genres that they prefer to read, often reading the same book many times. I’m fond of the novels of Tom Clancy and Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, for example, as
    [See the full post at: The Butter Did it–The Art of Reading Cookbooks]

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    #5672
    Italiancook
    Participant

    I have never read a cookbook like a novel. For most of my cooking days, I didn’t have time. I’d leaf through and find recipes that looked enticing. If three recipes in a cookbook don’t work out, I toss it. Lately, with more time, I read more of the cookbook but not all. It’s a good idea, though, Mike.

    As a new bride, my sister-in-law gave me “The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery.” It’s an alphabetical explanation of all the foods available in the U.S. at that time. It includes recipes. It would make an interesting read, but I’ve never used it that way.

    I don’t own any classic cookbooks, although I think one of my Italian cookbooks is by an author famous in Italy.

    #5677
    aaronatthedoublef
    Participant

    I just read an interesting article about two different cookbooks – one by Anthony Bourdain and the other by Alton Brown. I also read the article about Alton Brown referenced in this one. This article and the other make Mr. Brown seem a bit tragic.

    I like to read cookbooks too. Two of my favorites are Bread Bakers Apprentice and My Bread. They are both good reads independent of the recipes in them.

    I have some classics to and some that were classics to my family. I have several editions of the The Settlement Cookbook including a reprint of the first that tells how to make the recipes over open fires or woodstoves.

    But sometimes I avoid the classic. One of my favorite baking books is Jewish Holiday Baking by Marcy Goldman. It definitely is not a classic Jewish baking book and that is part of what appeals to me as my family is not what most people think of when they think of Jews and the “classic” Jewish dishes are not the things my mom made of cooked for holidays,

    Another favorite is Rosie’s. I saw it on a remainder table right after I had moved out west and was missing back East. I knew and loved Rosie’s bakery and couldn’t not buy it. It was this book that started me baking more than just chocolate chip cookies.

    Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone.

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